horses and america -- 11/20/23

Today's selection -- from Continental Reckoning: The American West in the Age of Expansion by Elliott West. The return of the horse to North America brought an economic and societal revolution:

“The modern horse, Equus ferus caballus, evolved out of the southern Great Plains over fifty million years. Its long, powerful legs fit it for the rolling open spaces of the American savannah. Its large, high-crowned teeth could graze the land's tough grasses. Its elongated head with elevated eyes alerted it to its many predators. By a bit less than a million years ago early horses had migrated across the bridge of land that periodically connected modern Alaska with Siberia (passing early bison migrating the other way). They flourished in the Old World from England to Japan and mutated into such new forms as zebras and asses. As historian Dan Flores has put it, all of the earth's varieties of Equidae ‘are more or less American tourists who forgot to go home.’

“About six or seven thousand years ago, probably in what is now Ukraine, people took one of the most eventful turns in human history. They began to domesticate horses, and by four or five thousand years ago the first horse cultures were coming into focus. A horse culture, as opposed to a people who sometimes ride horses, is a society that has adapted its essential means of living to the many advantages horses offer. Horseback people could travel farther and faster, trade more extensively, transport heavier burdens and in certain terrains hunt far more efficiently. They could also wage war more ferociously. All the changes might be summed up in a word: power, its physical expressions over space and animals and people and its spiritual expression of spirit and self-belief. 

“This was a genuinely revolutionary development in the human story, but its true source was not horses but what they ate. The horse's essential stuff was grass. Power requires energy. A horse's power comes from the energy stored in the grasses it eats, and on vast pastures like those in Central Asia and the Great Plains, that energy, sunlight captured through photosynthesis, is available in unimaginable amounts. It is unavailable to people, however. They can digest grass seeds (wheat, corn, and rice) but not the rest. They have to wait for a bison, deer, or other grazer to take in the energy before they can confiscate it for their own by eating the grazer. Because grass uses most of the solar energy it takes in for its basic functioning--just, that is, by being grass--a grazer gets only a small part of the original solar gift to the plants, and a person who eats the grazer gets only a small part of that. 

“When a person eats a horse, he is acquiring that limited energy stored as meat and tissue. But when that person gets on a horse to hunt, or harnesses the horse to a wagon or a plow, or loads it with a burden to carry, that person is accessing the animal's living energy, its power. He is in effect acquiring the energy, previously closed off from him, stored in the grasses around his feet. That was the essence of the revolution begun five millennia ago. A horse with a person on its back became in effect a new creation, an animal with the strength, speed, and grace of a horse and the imagination, ambition, and arrogance of a human. No wonder this new creature conjured up fabulous visions. In Greek mythology it became the centaur. In reality it might be called by the Spanish word for ‘gentleman’: caballero, literally a ‘horse-man.’ A horse culture was an entire society of them. 

“At the horse's birthplace of the Great Plains, however, none of this could happen. At the end of the most recent ice age horses were among dozens of species that went extinct. People there remained afoot as horse cultures spread across Central Asia to China and Egypt, North Africa and Europe, and then, when Spain made the leap to the new world, to the Indies and Mexico. From there in 1540 a large column under Francisco Vasquez de Coronado entered today's Arizona and New Mexico and the next year he led a command mounted on eighty stallions to the southern plains in present south-central Kansas. After a million-year circumnavigation of the globe, the horse had come home. 

“The effects were largely delayed, however, until the Pueblo revolt of 1680 drove the Spanish out of New Mexico and let loose their horses, through trade and raid, into the American interior. As horses and horse cultures spread from the Pacific Northwest to Canada, the grassland of the plains, suddenly a source of enormous energy and power, became prime real estate. Virtually every Native group that whites later met on the plains--Comanches, Lakotas, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Blackfeet, Crows, Assiniboines, and others--were relatively late arrivals. Each acquired horses at some point in their migrations; each committed themselves to a way of life impossible without them.

Bay (left) and chestnut (sometimes called "sorrel") are two of the most common coat colors, seen in almost all breeds.

“By 1780, a scant hundred years after they began to spread across the West and coincident with the other American revolution cresting in the East, horse cultures were in place wherever they would take hold. What followed was an American version of a very old story. Its most obvious feature was a burst of affluence and a quickening pulse of life that by the time the United States expanded to the Pacific had spawned a standard of living that, two authorities suggest, was literally and visually rising. Plains equestrians stood taller than the soldiers they would fight, and Cheyennes may have been among the tallest people on earth.  By trading more widely and effusively, horseback tribes filled their larger lodges with New England carpets, African coffee, sugar from Haiti, and English knives from Sheffield. As the givers of this grace, horses were flaunted and revered. Men painted them gaudily, braided their tails, strung bright ribbons from their manes, and chewed certain roots to blow into their hair as sweet fragrance. The famous Lakota leader Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) composed a song for his favorite, Bloated Jaw: 

‘My horse, 

Take dauntless courage. 

My horse,

The Tribes depend on you. 

Hence, my horse, 


“As had been true from China to Arabia, the rise of horse cultures set loose a reign of violence that was cresting in the 1850s as other bloodshed was unfolding on the Pacific coast. Here, however, it was not one of whites against Indians but Indians against Indians. Newly arrived peoples fought to control the suddenly valuable grasslands. Two great coalitions--Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Lakotas north of the Arkansas River and Comanches and Kiowas south of it--clashed bitterly until making peace in 1840, then both preyed on sedentary peoples on the fringes. Pawnees, Otoes, and Omahas along the Missouri River, especially vulnerable after smallpox epidemics in the 1830s, reeled under attacks from Cheyennes and Lakotas. An agent reported that they were ‘in danger of losing their scalps as soon as they put their heads outside their mud hovels.’ Fighting intensified as tribes on the eastern plains gained greater access to rifles and their long-distance killing power. In a single engagement in 1853 well-armed Pawnees and Potawatomies killed twenty-three Cheyennes and taunted the survivors by stuffing the victims' hearts into their bullet pouches.

“Fighting was even fiercer to the south, where Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches launched wolfish raids into the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Durango, Chihuahua, and Sonora to take horses, mules, and slaves. After their peace with the Cheyennes and Arapahos in 1840 their attacks soared, and as historian Brian DeLay shows, the numbers of Mexicans killed or captured increased at least tenfold. Any loss of warriors demanded raids of vengeance, on which of course more Comanches died (and more stock and people were stolen), which triggered more bloody retribution.

“Strangely and significantly, Americans in the East had virtually no sense of} the extraordinary violence roiling the Great Plains and Southwest. Comanches did raid on the Texas frontier, though nothing close to the degree against the Mexicans, and in the 1850s the army and the Lakotas contended for the Platte River Valley, but the intertribal conflicts in mid-America had no effect on the nearest American settlements in the Missouri Valley and, consequently, posed not the slightest discouragement to national expansion. In fact, by odd indirection, they promoted it. By the mid-1840s Comanche and Apache raids had left large swaths of northern Mexico all but depopulated. This fed the image of a barbarous Mexico incompetently governed, and once the war with Mexico was under way, the unpeopled towns and devastated rancheros left the sweep of country below the Rio Grande as an open gate for Yankee invaders. The swift American victory in turn fanned expansionist rhetoric, the racist spout that would encourage the eviction of Mexicans and the murder of Indians in California's second conquest. 

“The grass revolution had its price. Besides the costs of a spiraling warfare, the closer connections to a wider world and easier movement within their own left tribes more vulnerable to disease. Smallpox had often struck Texas and the Southwest, but it had spared those from the Missouri River to the Pacific because infected victims heading north on foot would be dead or noncontagious before reaching fresh bodies for the pox to colonize. Then came horses. By effectively shrinking western spaces, horses allowed the injection of one of history's greatest killers. In 1779-80 smallpox arrived again in the Southwest, but this time it moved steadily northward across the plains, up the Missouri Valley and finally westward to the Pacific Northwest. A recent estimate puts the deaths at more than sixty thousand. Another epidemic struck around 1800. It was only partly coincidence that the date of the West's first smallpox pandemic, 1780, also marked the point when horse cultures were firmly in place. 

“Just having horses posed problems. The horse-man bargain obliged people to provide the horse's fundamentals, starting with food. Comanches amassed such enormous herds, totaling up to 150,000 animals, that they ran short of prime pasturage, in part because the southern plains supported as well tens of thousands of wild horses. The raiding into Mexico, central Texas, and New Mexico became in part a sophisticated system of resource management. By waiting to pounce until others had used their own grasses and their own labor to raise their animals to maturity, Comanches in effect were outsourcing horse production. They then would further conserve their grasslands by trading those horses in distant markets. 


“Another basic need, shelter, was a problem for nearly half of the year. Winter storms swept into the plains with a speed and ferocity that threatened anything warm-blooded and in the open. The only sanctuary was in wooded valleys of rivers and streams, where timber and the slightly lower elevation provided a buffer from the blast, as well as water during the driest time of year. Occupying such a place for 15 or 20 weeks of winter, a camp of only 25 persons in western Kansas would require up to 5 acres of pasture and more than 260 cords of firewood, enough to fill more than 8 of the largest moving vans, culled from the same trees needed as shelter from the winds. There were scores of such smallish camps and some that were far larger. In November of 1848, in weather ‘cruelly, bitterly cold,’ an agent reported about six thousand Indians with twenty thousand horses camped in the ‘big timbers’ of southeastern Kansas. Altogether these essential winter refuges made up only about 5 percent of the plains. As the rising plains populations turned to them during the cold time, year after year, the camps wore down the very resources that gave those places their indispensable value. 

“The grass revolution ate away at another vital resource. The horse-man was the ultimate bison nightmare, something never encountered before: a grass-eating predator. Besides helping Indians hunt more effectively for their own uses, horses allowed an expanding trade in what was suddenly a hot item of commerce. Bison robes, laboriously processed from hides by Indian women, were bought by customers in the Northeast and in Europe for wintertime use in carriages and coaches and as exotic rugs and bed coverings. In effect, New Yorkers and Londoners were harnessing grass power to warm themselves in their beds and on their winter rides, with bison burned as fuel in the process. The numbers of robes sent eastward rose sharply after 1820, then still more after the great peace of 1840 opened much of the high plains to the full brunt of hunters. By most estimates more than a hundred thousand robes a year were being exported in the 1850s, but because of the timing and methods of hunting and processing, that number measured only part of the price.  One authority estimated that in 1857 the toll from hunting along the Upper Missouri alone was a million and a third buffaloes. He almost surely overshot, but by mid-decade, twenty years before white buffalo hunters began their great slaughter, agents along the Arkansas River reported bands were 'actually in a starving state ... due to the rapid decrease of the buffalo.’"



Elliott West


Continental Reckoning: The American West in the Age of Expansion (History of the American West)


University of Nebraska Press


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